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Posts Tagged ‘ambition’

I was posting about the meaning of work the other day, and one of the questions that came up in that discussion was the nature of ambition. Is it a good thing to want to use our talents well, to do our best, and to go as far as we can in whatever structure of work we are in? What if it involves wanting to get ahead of others, and by implication to keep them down? What if it is muddled up with pride, or vanity, or a lust for power, or insecurity, or whatever? What if the pressures of work, and especially of an ambitious work ethic, mean that we have less time and energy to give to family, friends, good works, etc?

By coincidence, the Jesuit Final Vows that I witnessed on Saturday involved a powerful reflection on the dangers of ambition – not in the public celebration of the Mass, but in the sacristy afterwards, when the new fully-professed Jesuit takes five additional ‘simple’ vows privately. James Martin explains:

These vows show how well St. Ignatius understood human nature. First, we vow never to change anything in the Jesuit Constitutions about poverty–unless to make it “more strict.” Second, a vow never to “strive or ambition” for any dignity in the church, like becoming a bishop. Third, never to “strive or ambition” for any high office in the Jesuits. Fourth, if we find out that someone is striving for these things, we are to “communicate his name” to the Society. (A friend calls this the vow to rat out someone, but it’s another indication of how much Ignatius wanted to eliminate ambition, as far as possible, from the Jesuits.) Finally, we take a vow that, if we are somehow made bishop, we will still listen to the superior general.

It doesn’t mean, of course, that you shouldn’t be ambitious for the ‘higher gifts’ (1 Cor 12); and the Jesuit ambition, above all, is always to seek whatever is for the greater glory of God. That’s the point of renouncing worldly or ecclesiastical ambition, in these simple vows, so that you can truly be ambitious for the Lord, without getting distracted by other stuff.

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On Sunday afternoon I met with a group of young adults to talk about the Christian understanding of work. It’s an important topic!

Very often people don’t think about it – even those who have a deep faith. They just go to work and get on with it; and perhaps they bring it to prayer when they are about to lose their job, or when they are seeking a new one. But not much more reflection than that. Or they ‘over-Christianise’ work, and think that as Christians they ought to be doing something that is ‘holy’ (which is half-true), which usually means something that is in the charitable sector or in one of the caring professions – and if they are not, they end up feeling guilty and a bit inadequate about their more mundane job.

So what is the meaning of work for a Christian?

A couple of paragraphs in the Catechism of the Catholic Church are very helpful (2427-8):

Human work proceeds directly from persons created in the image of God and called to prolong the work of creation by subduing the earth, both with and for one another. Hence work is a duty: “If any one will not work, let him not eat.” Work honours the Creator’s gifts and the talents received from him.

It can also be redemptive. By enduring the hardship of work in union with Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth and the one crucified on Calvary, man collaborates in a certain fashion with the Son of God in his redemptive work. He shows himself to be a disciple of Christ by carrying the cross, daily, in the work he is called to accomplish. Work can be a means of sanctification and a way of animating earthly realities with the Spirit of Christ.

In work, the person exercises and fulfills in part the potential inscribed in his nature. The primordial value of labour stems from man himself, its author and its beneficiary. Work is for man, not man for work.

Everyone should be able to draw from work the means of providing for his life and that of his family, and of serving the human community.

So there are a number of different motives for human work, different meanings, and they all have their place in the divine plan. One is not more ‘holy’ than another. It’s worth putting them into a more systematic list, and then seeing what each of them means for one’s own job – whatever it is.

Why get up in the morning? Why go to work? Here is the list. We work: (1) to earn money so that we can live and so that we can support our family; (2) to share in God’s work of creation through what we are actually doing; (3) as a way of serving others or contributing to the good of others – directly or indirectly; (4) to honour God by using our gifts and talents and fulfilling our potential; (5) as a way of bringing the Spirit of Christ to bear on ordinary life; (6) as an opportunity for us to grow in holiness; and (7) as a way of sharing in the redemptive work of Christ, above all by accepting the suffering and hardship of work.

Notice how the theology here is both idealistic and realistic at the same time. There is the nitty-gritty of simply needing some cash so that we and our family can live – and that is a good thing, not to be despised. There is the idealism of sharing in God’s creative and redemptive work, of fulfilling our potential, of serving others, etc. But there is also the realism that work is often hard and at many levels unfulfilling, yet it still has a meaning – as an opportunity to grow in virtue and offer up our difficulties to the Father in a spirit of sacrifice and faith.

What’s missing? Perhaps something about how we work, often, simply because we enjoy it (perhaps this comes under ‘fulfilling our potential’), or because we like being with people, or because we have a vision or passion for what we are doing, or because our parents, for example, have pushed us into following a certain career path. Maybe these extra ideas fit into the main list somehow.

And notice how many questions it raises. How do we know what job to take (if indeed we have a choice at all)? What if we can’t find any work? What if our work is destructive (morally? culturally? environmentally?) rather than creative? What if we are not using our talents, but apparently wasting them? What if the work is so hard or degrading that it becomes a form of injustice or oppression? What if we are required to be involved in wrongdoing or illegality – directly or indirectly? Or if we know about others at our workplace who are involved in such things? Is it wrong to be ambitious? Is it wrong to want to do better than others in order to succeed? What if the culture of work is damaging our relationships, our family life, our ability to live our faith? And a thousand other questions – many of which we discussed on Sunday.

I’m not going to try to answer them all here! Maybe there is material for some future posts here…

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I’m a great fan of the novelist Robert Harris. I got hooked when I read the first three pages of Archangel, and then devoured Fatherland and Pompeii. I’ve only just got round to reading his magnificent Imperium. It’s the story of Marcus Cicero, set in the last years of the Roman Republic, told by his secretary Tiro. And – for the most part – it is true.

Cicero by tonynetone.

Even though I lived in the city for five years, when I was training for the priesthood, I can honestly say that this is the first time ancient Rome has ever come alive for me. Cicero leaps out of the page – a brilliant, ambitious lawyer, full of insecurities and foibles, who longs to climb to the top of Roman politics. There are sublime moments when he comes to the defence of the weaker man against some monstrous injustice. And there are other times when it is clear he will sell almost his soul in order to gain his heart’s desire.

Ancient Rome (Detail) by Alun Salt.

The political campaigns feel as contemporary as the debates in an episode of The West Wing. And all the while – this is a thriller, remember – you are desperate to know what happens next. I had coffee with a friend just after I had finished the book, and he started to tell me what happens in Part II (in the recently published Lustrum), casually recounting a bit of supposedly well-known history. I cut him off quickly, grateful for my ignorance, in case he spoiled the pleasure of reading the next installment.

It’s about power, as it’s title proclaims. And how political power – even with all the idealism and public-spiritedness – will always be inseparable from ambition, money, friendship, vanity, jealousy, favours given, favours expected. This is not cynical – just realistic. The question is how to make this messy and ambiguous reality work – as far as possible – for the common good, and not against it; how to make it serve the cause of justice even as it serves the inevitable ambitions of those involved. There are so many contemporary parallels.

It’s also about writing and making speeches and the agony of facing a deadline with a blank sheet of paper before you. Here is one lovely quotation to end with:

No-one can really claim to know politics properly until he has stayed up all night, writing a speech for delivery the following day. While the world sleeps, the orator paces around by lamplight, wondering what madness ever brought him to this occupation in the first place. Arguments are prepared and discarded. Versions of openings and middle sections and perorations lie in drifts across the floor. The exhausted mind ceases to have any coherent grip upon the purpose of the enterprise, so that often – usually an hour or two after midnight – there comes a point where failing to turn up, feigning illness and hiding at home seem the only realistic options. And then, somehow, under pressure of panic, just as humiliation beckons, the parts cohere, and there it is: a speech. A second-rate orator now retires gratefully to bed. A Cicero stays up and commits it to memory. [Arrow Books, 2007, p. 132]

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